What is carbon monoxide (abbreviated CO)? CO is a poisonous, tasteless, colorless and odorless gas that can cause severe damage in a matter of minutes. It is produced by the incomplete burning from anything that burns fuel. Some of these types of items include car exhaust, furnaces, fireplaces, kerosene heaters, gas appliances, boats and charcoal grills. Most of the time, these items, if installed and used correctly, will not cause problems. However, defects, incorrect installation or incorrect use (such as running a car or using a kerosene heater in enclosed spaces) can cause a buildup of CO gas, leading to potentially serious problems.
How does CO harm the body? When CO is present in the air, it is inhaled into the lungs and competes with the oxygen to bind to hemoglobin in the cells. Oxygen is vital to life, so a lack of oxygen being carried in the cells can cause cell death, tissue destruction and brain damage. Prolonged exposure can lead to coma or death.
How many people are affected by CO poisoning in the US? The statistics on carbon monoxide poisoning each year in the US is overwhelming. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that on average each year, over 400 lives are lost, over 20,000 people are treated in the emergency room and more than 4,000 people are hospitalized from unintentional CO poisoning not linked to fires. Everyone is at risk of CO poisoning, but infants, the elderly, those with chronic heart conditions, anemia or breathing issues are more likely to become sick from exposure. The sheer number of injuries and death from this silent killer should have you asking what can I do to make sure this does not happen to me or my family.
What can I do to help prevent CO poisoning for me and my family?
There are several guidelines that the CDC recommends that everyone should follow to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Yearly, have a qualified serviceman check your A/C unit, furnace, and water heater as well as any additional oil, gas or coal burning appliances in your home.
- Install a battery-operated CO detector in all levels of your home. You can find inexpensive detectors in home improvement stores that are very easy to install. Purchase a new CO detector every five years to prevent malfunction of any old devices.
- Change the batteries every year in your CO detector…do not wait until it is too late! A good strategy is to plan a time to change both the CO detector and smoke detector batteries at the same time. The CDC recommends to do this when you fall back or spring ahead with the time change, but any time works as long as it is consistent in your home. So pick a time you will remember and mark it on your calendar.
- Never use a grill, generator or any other gas or charcoal burning item inside of your home or in a closed space, including a garage, workshop or camper. Opening a window or door in the house will not prevent CO poisoning.
- Never leave an automobile running inside an attached garage, even if the garage door is open. Don’t be tempted to warm up the car inside on those cold winter mornings.
- Never burn anything inside your home, unless it is in an approved vented area, such as a properly vented fireplace or wood-burning stove.
- If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator (and it is not the smell from your two week old forgotten meal), have a service technician come look at it as it could be leaking CO.
- Never use your oven or other heating appliances to heat your home.
- Have your chimney expertly cleaned each year as sometimes it can get blocked and not let air through, thus trapping CO in your home.
What are the signs of CO poisoning? If you feel any symptoms of CO poisoning or suspect you have been exposed to CO, go outside for fresh air and seek medical attention immediately. Some of the signs of CO poisoning include feeling dizzy, nauseated, light headed, confused, blurred vision, dull headache or loss of consciousness.
What should I do if my CO detector alarm sounds? If the CO detector alarm sounds, get out of your home immediately and call 911! Never stay inside the home if the alarm is going off. Remember, CO is odorless, tasteless and colorless, so you will not see, taste or smell it.
Is it required to have a CO detector in the home? Each state has different requirements regarding CO detectors. The current NC state building code requires either battery-operated or electrical carbon monoxide detectors in all new dwellings that have a gas burning heater or appliance, fireplace or an attached garage1.
Do home inspectors look for CO detectors in the home? We do inspect for CO detectors. All of our home inspection reports note the presence or absence of a CO detector in the home. If the home has a gas burning heater or appliance and/or has an attached garage, we highly recommend the installation of a CO detector in the home.
In short, be sure to check your home for a CO detector. If you do not have one, we recommend you head to the local hardware store and purchase one for your home. Doing this simple and inexpensive task will help you sleep easier knowing you have added protection against the hidden dangers of this deadly poison.